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December 2010

November 2010

Sour Beer: The Belgians Must Be Crazy

I don't like sour beers.

Why should I? In the litany of adjectives used to describe beer -- hoppy, malty, sweet, crisp, floral, roasted, spicy, refreshing, clean, dry, light, pale, dark -- none are so off putting as sour. Sour says there's something wrong. Sour says spoiled.

We've all had or heard about "skunked" beers. It's what happens when beer is exposed to light too long and goes bad. You know what the predominant flavor of "skunked" beer is? Sour. Beer is also susceptible to infection. What does an infected beer taste like? Yup, a soured beer.

So how have sour beers hung around for 1,000 years and what am I doing trying to like them?

My biggest problem is I'm a beer geek. I love everything about beer. I love to drink it, I love to learn about its history and the way it's made, and I love making it at home. As an enthusiast, I like to think I have a pretty sophisticated palate. While there are certain styles I prefer -- India pale ales and English bitters -- I like to think I can find the merit in any style. I can, save one: sour beers.

They're nasty and that's frustrating. Is it me or the beer? Are all these sour beer enthusiasts just screwing with me, or is my palate merely pedestrian?

I encountered my first sour beer, Duchesse de Bourgognes, a few years ago. It was a neat looking bottle with a Medieval broad on the label, so I decided to give it a go. When I got home, I popped the cork, poured a pint and took a nice big sip ... of the NASTIEST FUCKING SHIT (really, what is this?!!) I'd ever poured in my mouth. Rather than the familiar sweet and malty flavors I'm accustomed to in dark ales, I had a mouth full vinegar.

16520015 My wife, who likes vinegary things, said the beer tasted like Worcestershire sauce and refused to drink it. I struggled though a couple more sips until she said "Do you really want a beer bad enough to keep drinking that?" No I didn't. With that, my inadvertent foray into sour beers began and ended.

However, I haven't been able to completely get away from them. Sour beers originated in Belgium, and D.C. is a Belgian beer town. I also consume too much beer-related media, so I've read, watched and heard a lot about sour beers and how wonderful they are. Yet, every time the subject of sour beers is brought up, it comes with the same caveat: they're an acquired taste (which usually means it is tastes pretty shitty, but you'll get used to it).

So I got to wondering, is it possible to learn to love the unlovable? Can I acquire a taste for sour beers? I don't know, but I decided to dedicate a couple posts to the pursuit. If it turns out that I can, then anyone can.

The thing about sour beers is they are among the most interesting of all beers. Sour is an umbrella term that refers to Flemish red and brown ales (Duchesse de Bourgognes is a Flemish red ale), and lambics. Among lambics, you have gueuze, faro, mars, kriek, framboise, peche, casis and muscat beers. You could even include beers made with brettanomyces yeast among the sour beers. Brettanomyces, or brett, is the scourge of wine makers, but a favorite yeast strain for many American craft breweries producing sour beers (The Bruery, Jolly Pumpkin, Russian River, Allagash, Odell, and Victory, to name a few).

Sour beer is like no other style of beer. Obviously, the flavor is unique, but the way the beers are made is also unusual. Traditional lambics are one of the oldest styles of beer in the world. They're made in open vessels to allow wild yeast -- and whatever else is floating around -- to drift in and trigger spontaneous fermentation. Flemish red and brown ales are made by blending freshly brewed beer with beer that's been allowed to sour in infected barrels. Speaking of infections, brettanomyces is difficult to work with and can infect every beer in a brewery if the brewer isn't careful, yet it seems to be the latest trend in craft beer. 

Bill Catron is a Belgian beer knight, which makes him an expert on these sorts of things. Yet, I have trouble believing him when he says things like "sour beers are kind of like the Gatorade of the beer world." Seriously? Yup, the sour flavor, he alleges, is thirst quenching.

Because these beers are different and because there is an audience for sour beers, Bill said breweries are willing to specialize in them and in some cases risk infecting the rest of their product line to produce them.

16520019 To better understand sour beers, and to reacquaint myself with the Duchesse, I sat down with Matt LeBarron, Granville Moore's beverage director, who agreed to do a sour beer tasting with me (yippee).

"Not everyone's palate is the same, but those who love (sour beer) really love it."

And what about those who don't?

"It's an acquired taste."

For the tasting, I told Matt I wanted try the beers a sour beer enthusiast would order. Nothing easy, nothing for the novice. He responded with Petrus Aged Pale, St. Louis Gueuze Fond Tradition, Ommegang Zuur, Rodenbach Grand Cru, Monk's Café Flemish Sour Ale, Hanssen's Oudbeitje and, at my request, Duchesse de Bourgognes. If you order any of these beers at Granville Moore's you will be asked if you know what you're ordering. If you order a Stella, you get a Stella, no questions asked.

Still, it was the most interesting beer tasting I've ever experienced. If I learned anything, it was that not all sour beers taste the same.

16520018 Hannsen's Oudbeitje was revolting. The lambic was horrifically sour, extremely tart and dry as a litter box. I found it physically difficult to drink. Matt said Oudbeitje reminds him of white wine or Sweet Tarts (Matt obviously drinks some messed up white wine and has never tasted a Sweet Tart). On the other hand, Monk's Café was sweet, smooth and faintly sour. By far, it was my favorite of the evening. The menu at Granville Moore's says Monk's Café is the Dr. Pepper of beers thanks to its many subtle (read: enjoyable) flavors. Not surprisingly, Monk's Café was the most popular of the beers we tried.

The other beers fell somewhere in between. Duchesse de Bourgognes still tastes like something you'd put on steak rather than drink with it, while the Petrus was, well, dry. That's it, just dry. Think brut Champaign without the flavor or rainbows without color. Rodenbach Gran Cru had a similar balsamic vinegar flavor as Duchesse de Bourgognes, but more restrained, so other flavors, like caramel and dark cherries, came through. I didn't love the beer, but I could stop drinking it.

The gueuze was the biggest surprise. I've heard gueuze beers described as tasting like old sweat socks, dank locker rooms, Band-Aids, and wet barns, so I expected the worst. Instead, I found it tart and very dry. It wasn't my favorite, but it wasn't that bad. Unlike Oudbeitje, I could understand why someone would like the occasional gueuze beer.

"Most people will not have these as their go-to beers, but those who do have them will have them from time to time," Matt said.

Bill is one of those people. For a guy who's recognized for his broad knowledge of Belgium's many beer styles, his favorite is the nicheiest of them all.

"I think (sour beers are) one of the most interesting beers in Belgium."

Matt is much the same. When I asked him what his favorite beer was, he pointed to the Zuur, a Belgian-style Flemish brown ale that I found sour, dry and tart.

16520024 As for me, I still don't like the Duchesse, but I do like Monk's Café. I also have a better appreciation for sour beers. If nothing else, I now know that not all sour beers are the same. Far from it, in fact.

For the next post, I'll be talking to Franklin's brewer Mike Roy about the sour beers he's making in the Hyattsville brewpub and trying a few beers that might make the transition to sour beers a little less bumpy.

Must Haves: El Pollo Rico's World Famous Peruvian Chicken

Must Haves focuses on some of D.C.'s best dishes.

No restaurant epitomizes the concept of doing one thing well like El Pollo Rico.

You know El Pollo Rico. People in Guam know El Pollo Rico thanks to Tony Bourdain. And if you know El Pollo Rico, you know the chicken is fantastic. So fantastic, in fact, that you ignore the miserably bland fries and crappy cole slaw that every order comes with. You ignore the awkward location, the ugly interior and the owners' legal troubles.

You ignore all that because that chicken, coated in Peruvian spices (ground Inca and cocaine) and rotisseried round and round, is absolutely amazing.

DSCN5799 I've probably eaten hundreds of chickens in my lifetime. After all, it's the first white meat. Yet, I remember the first time I had El Pollo Rico. My buddy Columbo brought a few earth-friendly Styrofoam containers full of half chickens and fries over to my girlfriend's efficiency near Virginia Square. I still remember tearing into the chicken and being blown away by the flavor and thinking, "Wow, these fries really suck."

That's the thing, though, the fries don't matter. The fact that the restaurant is located between Wilson Boulevard and Fairfax Drive, and yet can't be seen from either doesn't matter. The fact that the rest of Clarendon has transformed into a dining destination for hipsters and the well-heeled doesn't seem to matter either.

That damn chicken made El Pollo Rico an Arlington institution a long time ago. And as long as they keep cranking out that magical Peruvian bird, it'll remain an institution, crappy French fries and all.

El Pollo Rico
932 Kenmore St.
Arlington, Va. 22201  

Thanksgiving Turkeys, Get your orders in while you can

This is just a friendly reminder to everyone not to wait too long to get your fresh turkey order in!

In my personal experience, a fresh turkey from a farm is much better than any of the frozen birds you can get at a grocery store. The benefits of a fresh bird are The cook time is almost half that of a frozen turkey and the turkey comes out much better tasting and juicy. Even at the farmers market, if you pick it up at the  farmers market, many times the farmer the bird is still frozen before they give it to you, which really kind of defeats the purpose of getting it from the farmer. In any case, check with the farmer or vendor before you order it to make sure it will be delivered fresh and not frozen.

The problem is sometimes it's a hike to get to a "local" farm. So if driving out to one of the farms listed below isn't an option for you, check with your local Whole Foods, Moms Organic Market, or the Organic Butcher in McLean and ask to make sure the turkey you order will never be frozen. But just remember that you will pay a premium for the convenience.

If you're wondering where these farms are, I've created a page where with a listing of them. 


Old Ebbitt Oyster Riot alternative?

If your like me and you're someone that loves oysters but has a pregnant wife and just can't justify the expense of two tickets to the Old Ebbitt Oyster Riot...ok, there probably aren't that many of you, but I was chatting with a the chef at Addie's, Nate Waugaman, (his daughter and my son go to the same school and are in the same soccer league) about my frustration and he had this other suggestion.

"Come to the Addie's Oyster Roast this Sunday!" he told me. 

"What's that?!" I asked him, "and why don't I know about it?!"

He went on to explain that Addie's Oyster Roast will have oysters every way, roasted, fried, and of course, on the half-shell, so I can eat all the oysters, raw or otherwise that I want. But in addition, My wife would also be able to gorge herself on all the roasted Chesapeake clams, BBQ chicken, chili, hot dogs, cornbread, roast suckling pig, deviled eggs, coleslaw, caramel apples, cookies and brownies she could eat.

There will also be live music, beer and wine (for me of course). And, unlike the Old Ebbitt Oyster Riot, which is not something you would take your kids to, this will be a very kid-friendly event with face painting, bobbing for apples, temporary tattoos, and a moon bounce, so I don't have to pay for a baby sitter. Score!

Even better is that all the profits support juvenile diabetes and the Diabetes Care Complex at Children’s National Medical Center. 

So if you aren't doing anything this Sunday afternoon (November 14th) between 12 and 5 PM, come by Addie's in Rockville. Tickets are $60 at the door, or $50 if you order them off the Addie's Web Site or call 301-881-0081. Kids under 12 are $20 and kids under 5 are free. 

The Grateful Harvest: A F@#%ING Cranberry Ale Worth Drinking.

Cranberry Ale! Cranberry, NUT CRUNCH F@#%ING ALE! Let me tell ya something folks, Cranberries and beer do not go together! One’s for bladder infections, one’s for getting DRUNK!

Thus spake then coke-fueled comedian, present-day animated saber-toothed tiger Dennis Leary way back in the early nineties. Funny rant, and there was once a point when I agreed. Don't remember the bit? Check it out below (suffice it to say, this is pretty damned NSFW, so put on some headphones).


The world of beer has changed a lot in the past 20 years. I wonder if the calmer, more well-heeled Leary of today feels the same about microbrews as he did in his psycho days. Well, the man did make a good point: Sam Adams Cranberry Ale sucks. This beer was also my introduction to fruit beers, and I did not take another turn at it for a many a year. Honestly, I don't know why they keep making that crap; I guess someone must buy it. In any case, another Boston brewery has recently taken up the cranberry for brewing inspiration, and pulled it off with style and grace.

TurkeyBeer1 Harpoon's Grateful Harvest Cranberry Ale is a new addition to the venerable old brewery's stable of lagers and ales, and the first whose proceeds go directly to Harpoon Helps, the philanthropic wing of said brewery. For each six pack sold, Harpoon donates one dollar to a food charity local to the point of sale. According to the brewery, Harpoon Helps has already raised more than $230,000 for local charities this year, and has donated more than 16,000 pints to charitable events.

Charity is all well and good, but if the beer is no good, they aren't likely to sell a bunch. Fortunately, Harpoon did a damned fine job with this one. The beer pours a pretty russet brown, with slightly red highlights, and a short lived, off-white head. The nose is a rich amalgam of roasted nuts, dark red fruit and earth, along with a hint of malted grain. On the attack this beer is both sweet and tart, and flavored of sweet malt and dried leaves. The beer is slightly creamy on the mid-palate, where the cranberry flavor kicks in, leading into a dry, malty, bitter fruit accented finish.

  TurkeyBeer2 Where the Sam Adams Cranberry Ale is an over the top fruit bomb, Harpoon's Grateful Harvest is a highly drinkable, subtly flavored brown ale which anyone might enjoy. It's seasonally appropriate, charitable, and delicious; what's not to love? I picked up a six-pack at the Whole Foods in Arlington for $8.99, which I find to be a bargain. Unfortunately, I have not found a single other store that carries it in DC -- even the P Street Whole Foods doesn't have it, which really surprised me. I will keep my eyes open and update this post with more locations as I find them. In the meantime, the beer is available through December, according to Harpoon's website, and easily ordered from the local distributor, so encourage your favorite local shop to get you a case for your Thanksgiving shenanigans.